The 2013 Sloan Sports Analytics Conference at MIT served as yet another milestone to mark the NBA's ongoing march into the Age of Enlightenment in sports. According to ESPN's Kevin Pelton, 29 of the league's 30 teams were represented in one way or another at the annual summit of sports geeks and statistical masterminds.
The lone exception? The Los Angeles Lakers, who've already made it clear that they plan to have a presence in Boston in 2014.
For now, though, the Lakers' symbolic absence from the event that marries sports and science like no other is indicative of a team that, by virtue of employing Kobe Bryant as its central superstar, is clinging to the tenets of basketball's "yesteryear."
It's the notion that basketball is at least as much an art as it is a science, to which Kobe's career and ongoing brilliance as a scorer can surely attest.
To be sure, Kobe isn't the NBA's most prolific scorer, nor is he (nor has he ever been) the most efficient. That mantle belongs to Kevin Durant, and rightfully so. He's currently in a dead heat with Carmelo Anthony in the race for the scoring title, which would be Durant's fourth in as many seasons.
Historically speaking, such an accomplishment would place Durant in rather elite company. Only Michael Jordan and Wilt Chamberlain have ever led the league in scoring for more than three years in a row. Jordan did it seven times between 1986 and 1993, while Chamberlain originated that same feat between 1959 and 1966.
But neither of those two have ever done what KD is on track to do. In fact, nobody in NBA history has ever done what Durant is likely to do by season's end.
That is, lead the league in scoring while shooting at least 50 percent from the field, 40 percent from three-point range and 90 percent from the line.
In Wilt's defense, the three-point shot wasn't a part of the game back when he played, though it seems unlikely that he would've been all that proficient at it anyway. Even if the arc had been around in the late 1950s and into the 1960s, Chamberlain's issues at the free-throw line (51.1 percent for his career) would've stopped that pursuit dead in its tracks.
But that's beside the point.
What's more important here is that Durant is scoring more efficiently this season in relation to his peers and the league around him than anyone ever has. Larry Bird holds the record among 50-40-90 Club members for single-season scoring average at 29.9 points per game. Durant would have to do plenty of work to catch Bird in that regard, given his current average of 28.6.
That seems unlikely, unless A) Durant gets back to scoring 30-plus points on the regular, and/or B) the Oklahoma City Thunder stop blowing teams out, thereby creating a greater need for Durant to score 30-plus on the regular.
In any case, as far as shooting and scoring go, Durant is putting the rest of the NBA (Kobe Bryant included) to shame and may well continue that trend when his Thunder host Kobe's Lakers on March 5th. Bryant's numbers (27.3 points, 47.2 percent shooting from the field, 33.4 percent from three, 84 percent from the free-throw line) are all strong by his own standards, but they pale in comparison to those of Durant.
If we "visualize" the situation, Durant's advantage in efficiency seems even more profound.
Durant doesn't fare particularly well in the corners or on long twos. Then again, he doesn't bother much with those shots, either. The rules, the culture and the philosophy of basketball have shifted to reward those who can attack the basket and shoot from deep because those shots, by definition, are of the highest value in the sport.
Aside from the lack of success in the short corners, Durant's game seems to reflect this. The areas in which he takes the most shots double as the areas from which he hits with the greatest accuracy. Simply put, Durant plays to his strengths, which are clearly many and varied.
This would appear to be in contrast to what Kobe does.
Bryant shoots at or above league average rates in more zones (11) than does Durant (nine), but he doesn't match up to Durant when comparing zones of high efficiency, in which KD holds a 9-3 edge.
Of course, the roles played by Bryant and Durant on their respective teams are different, too.
Kobe often takes tough, contested shots at or near the end of the clock. Whether those are by (poor) choice or out of necessity is a matter of some debate, though the Lakers aren't exactly replete with guys who can create for themselves. Steve Nash can, but he's hardly one to overwhelm the opposition with speed, strength or sheer athleticism.
Neither are the Thunder—though Durant, at the very least, can count on Russell Westbrook to make things happen just as frequently as he might need to do so for himself.
If we shift the focus from visuals to crunch time, the Durantula still owns a decisive advantage over the Black Mamba. According to NBA.com, Durant leads the league in total points scored during the last five minutes with neither team ahead or behind by more than five points.
Durant's 122 points in 111 minutes of such crunch time blow Kobe's 94 points in 100 minutes out of the water, thanks in no small part to Durant's decisive advantage in free-throw attempts, 61 to 36.
Durant maintains an advantage of some sort in nearly every possible breakdown of this sort—be it over the final two minutes, the last minute or the closing 30 seconds—regardless of whether the margin is five points, three points or none.
Clearly, then, the numbers point to Durant's superiority as a scorer in the here and now. Obviously, KD's 11,666 career points aren't even on the same plane of existence as Kobe's 31,123—which is the fifth-most all-time, just behind Wilt and MJ's respective stashes.
But Durant, in his sixth NBA season, is all of 24 years old, while Kobe, in his 17th season, is fast approaching 35. If health and productivity prevail, Durant will more than likely catch Bryant in the history books before too long.
In the meantime, though, as overwhelming an advantage as Durant may hold through a statistical lens, it'd be foolish to characterize him as the better "pure scorer" between himself and Kobe based only on the numbers.
Because scoring, in its purest sense, is one of those facets of the game that makes basketball an art form as much as (if not more than) anything else. Long twos and mid-range shots may not be the most efficient in basketball, but to truly master the art of scoring, a player must be proficient from every distance and every angle.
It all plays into the essence of what being a pure scorer is about—a diversity of options.
The best pure scorers are the ones with the biggest and deepest proverbial bags of tricks. They can spot up from the perimeter, stop and pop in the middle of the floor, punish opponents in the post with hook shots and turnaround jumpers, slash to the basket off the bounce, cut off the ball, dribble into a shot, use the glass with regularity...and the list goes on.
Pure scoring isn't about efficiency so much as it's about versatility and creativity. Allen Iverson shot just 42.5 percent from the field for his career, but he will be remembered as one of the greatest scorers the NBA has ever seen because of the array of floaters, flip shots and fadeaways that he used to get the ball through the hoop.
The same goes for Kobe. He's had more than a decade of a head start on Durant to work on and add to his game, to test out and perfect different moves, to study and learn from peers (Tim Duncan) and forebears (Hakeem Olajuwon and Michael Jordan) and incorporate their maneuvers into his own oeuvre.
Durant isn't quite there yet. He came into the NBA as a shooter who could score and—though he's become more proficient in the post and more deceptive in his moves all over the court—remains more a shooter who can score than anything else.
The distinction between Durant and Kobe is not unlike that which is often drawn in baseball between power hitters and hitters with power. A shooter who scores can clearly pile up points, just as a hitter with power can drive in runs and hit balls out of the park.
However, for a shooter like Durant, scoring is more often a byproduct of shooting sharply than the act itself, just as some like, say, Albert Pujols hits home runs as a byproduct of him making contact with the ball as often as he does.
Kobe, on the other hand, has never been a greater shooter (.454 from the field, .336 from three for his career), but he has always been a premier scorer. As with a prolific power hitter like Jim Thome, who hit better than .300 only three times over the course of more than two decades in MLB, Kobe's found other ways to produce points beyond being the most accurate shooter. For him, as with any "pure scorer," it's about finding (and hopefully perfecting) as many different modes of production as possible to keep the opposition guessing, rather than honing one trick and going to it ad infinitum.
Not that Durant is a one-trick pony or anything. Rather, Durant's greatness began with a smooth shooting stroke and has come to include other means of scoring over time, whereas Kobe's greatness began with a more diverse resourcefulness to achieve productivity and has since grown to include a more reliable shooting stroke.
In that sense, Kobe is indeed superior as a pure scorer and might always be, because scoring is the essence of Kobe's basketball identity.
Sure, scoring may seem as simple as piling up points, counting them and now analyzing them in new and eye-opening ways, as the brilliant minds who converged at Sloan have done. If scoring were only about ends, about scientific certainties, then Durant would wear the crown without contest.
But it's not.
It's about using artful means to achieve a specific end. In that regard, Kobe still has a shot at staying with (if not ahead of) the most prolific of his younger peers. The next meeting between these two should provide yet another glimpse into the art and the science that bind and separate these two superstars to and from one another.
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